It was inevitable, really . . .

‘What?’, I hear you ask. Publication of a raft of new books about the ‘Great War’, the ‘First World War’, ‘World War I’, the ‘War to End All Wars’ – take your pick – since August this year marks the centenary of the start of that war. I recently wrote about a couple of these that discussed the events leading up to the outbreak of war, and how and why it came to end as it did in November 1918 after years of stalemate. Although a ‘student’ of history, I normally avoid the many books about military history and especially the First and Second World Wars. But since these must make up at least 50% or more of those on the history shelves, I guess it was inevitable that my attention would be drawn to these, especially in this centenary year. But, if you follow the thesis of James Hawes latest offering Englanders and Huns, then conflict between Great Britain and Germany was inevitable from the 1860s onwards. And in an innovative way, Hawes (a German scholar and academic at Oxford Brookes University) has used articles and editorials, and – most interestingly – cartoons, from both German and English newspapers and magazines (Punch, in the case of the UK) during the 50 years leading up to August 1914.

Germany was a country that lacked confidence, envious (jealous, even) of Great Britain, a country it thought should be its natural ally. It was envious of Great Britain’s empire, its navy and perceived that its imperial aims were being thwarted. With Bismarck in power – reflecting a dichotomy in German society between the conservative and Protestant north and northeast (Prussia) and the liberal and Catholic south, German society was also very rigid and hierarchical: the ‘vons’ versus the ‘non-vons’ in Hawes’ terminology. The tensions between Germany and Great Britain were not helped by the Kaiser, Wilhelm II, being half-English – his mother Victoria, the Princess Royal, was the eldest child of Queen Victoria. The Kaiser’s apparent fondness, at times, for all things ‘English’ (much resented in Germany), his dislike of his uncle, the future Edward VII, and his apparent mental instability all contributed towards growing animosity between the two countries.

I also learned a new term after reading this book: ‘Manchesterism’ (symbolizing free trade and consumerism) that was coined by a German socialist in the 1870s as a term of abuse. By the end of the 19th century and Germany’s support for the Boers in South Africa, it was surprising that Germany had not already come to blows with Great Britain. Everyone expected it – and were already planning how new technology could be used to curtail the power and influence of the Royal Navy, as this cartoon clearly illustrates, even before the Zeppelin had been ordered for the German military. Englanders and Huns is not a particularly easy read – but it’s a worthwhile one, opening up a new window on Anglo-German relations in the decades before 1914. It also says a lot about what came after the First World War and the rise of Nazi Germany. It was published in February this year by Simon & Schuster (ISBN:  0857205285, 9780857205285).


10:58 am. On the outskirts of Mons in Belgium. A rifle shot rings out. It must be a sniper, defending the retreating German troops as they moved eastwards away from the Western Front. A British soldier – one of the countless Tommies who perished during the Great War – falls dead in his comrade’s arms.

Two minutes later and it will 11 o’clock on the eleventh day of the eleventh month. 1918, and the Armistice that the Germans had sued for over the previous weeks comes into effect (although some exchanges of fire would continue for a couple more hours along the Western Front). All became silent, but two minutes too late for this British soldier. One more tragedy after more than four years of the tragedy of conflict, during which the combatants tried to slug each other to defeat without success – until now.

I had always wondered how Great Britain became embroiled in a European war that was started four years earlier in August 1914 following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Saravejo at the end of June. Just a month later Europe was consumed in a conflagration that came to be known as World War One or the Great War. How did an event hundreds of miles away in Bosnia drag Great Britain into war? Well, a couple of months I did write about the start of the Great War after reading Sean McMeekin’s excellent July 1914: Countdown to War published in 2013. In the first few months of the war, the respective front lines of the Entente Powers – France, Great Britain and her Dominions (Canada and Australia) and colonies, and eventually the Americans after 1917 and the Central Powers – Germany and her allies – were already established and didn’t move much over the next four years. Stalemate had been achieved.

So what changed in 1918? How did the war come to an end. I have just finished reading an excellent review of the last months of the conflict, A Hundred Days – The end of the Great War* by Nick Lloyd, Senior Lecturer in Defence Studies at King’s College London (based at the Joint Services Command and Staff College in Wiltshire).

The Germans had launched a Spring offensive in April and May 1918, and although they came within a whisker of a victory over the Allies, they were not able to achieve their objectives. The Allies withstood this major assault, but the Germans were irretrievably weakened. Then from mid-August the Allies went on the offensive and, using tanks, superior (overwhelming in fact) air power, and improved battlefield tactics, began to make the sort of breakthrough that had eluded both sides in the conflict through four years of stalemate. Soon, the Germans were out-gunned, out-witted, demoralized and apparently disproportionately affected by a flu epidemic; they began retreating north and eastwards.

The end of the Great War was approaching, and Wilhelm II – ‘Kaiser Bill’ – was forced to abdicate just before the Armistice was signed, bringing to an end centuries of rule by the Hohenzollern dynasty, and going into exile in the Netherlands. He never did accept that Germany had been defeated.

The debate over the end of the war, whether the Allies should have pushed for outright victory, continues, as does that over who was to blame for starting the conflict in the first place. Having entered the war in August 1914 Great Britain was there for the duration – only defeat of Germany was the acceptable outcome. And to a large extent that was what was achieved. It was Germany that sued for peace – she could no longer sustain the conflict. Political reality set in, the threat of revolution in Germany hovered over the country, and the German military had nothing more to give.

Were the terms of the peace treaty signed at Versailles in June 1919 too harsh? There are those who argue that they were, and historians like Niall Ferguson argue that Great Britain should never have become involved in the first place. Germany was a ‘broken’ country. Since the Allies never invaded Germany (apart from occupying the Ruhr) there were always those who denied that she had ever been defeated. Certainly there was an upsurge of nationalism after the war leading ultimately to the coming to power of the Nazis in the 1930s – and all the consequences that arose therefrom. Had we learned nothing from the First World War. It took another world war to defeat German militarism once and for all. Today Europe is a much more stable continent although the Balkans have seen their fair share of conflict in recent decades. The ongoing crisis in the Ukraine and the flexing of Russian muscles is all too redolent of the mistakes that led to conflict in 1914. We can only hope that in today’s geopolitical environment there are fewer chances of mistakes happening because opposing sides in a potential conflict are unaware of what each other is doing, unlike in the days leading to the outbreak of the Great War.


* London: Viking. ISBN: 0670920061, 067092007X, 9780670920068, 9780670920075

These two books about the war are also worth considering:
Max Hastings, 2013. Catastrophe: Europe goes to war 1914. London: William Collins. ISBN: 0007398573, 9780007398577 

Ian F.W. Beckett and Steven J. Corvi (eds.), 2006. Haig’s Generals. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military. ISBN: 1844151697, 9781844151691.

What if?

4 August 1914. Britain declares war on Germany, joining the Entente Powers Russia and France a couple of days after war had already been declared between them and the Central Powers, Germany and Austria-Hungary.

In August this year nations around the world will commemorate the beginning of the First World War (WWI) – ‘the Great War’. Already this week the BBC begins a four year, 2,500 hour broadcasting extravaganza about the war. No doubt there will be commentary, analysis, blame perhaps, but most of all (I hope), reflection on the folly of society and the politicians (and at the time of WWI, the heads of state including monarchs) who danced diplomatically around each other and into war.

I’ve just finished reading Sean McMeekin’s analysis*, published last year, of the lead up to the war from the initial incident – the ‘spark that set Europe aflame’ only a month later: the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (and his wife of a morgantic marriage, Sophie) on the morning of Sunday 28 June in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Until now I have paid scant attention to the Great War in my historical reading . For one thing, neither of my grandfathers fought in the war, although other relatives did. By 1914, my Jackson grandfather was almost 41 and profoundly deaf. My maternal grandfather Healy, born in 1876, was 38 years old and a serving officer in the Metropolitan Police in London. So although my curiosity was never roused about what my forebears did during that war, it has always been a mystery to me how an incident in the Balkans led to the conflagration that consumer Europe, and spread beyond that continent to Africa and beyond.

While Archduke Franz was the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire – but an unpopular one – his children had been barred from the succession because of his marriage to a commoner, and a former lady-in-waiting at that. His assassination at the hands of Serb nationalists focused the attention of Austria-Hungary once again on the Balkans, the scene of several wars in the preceding decade. One thing led to another, mobilization by Russia in support of Serbia, led to counter mobilization by Germany and Austria-Hungary, as well as France fulfilling its treaty support to Russia. Britain finally entered the fray on 4 August after Germany had invaded Belgium (which the Belgians resisted), fulfilling its guarantee of Belgian neutrality under a treaty of 1839.

Using cabinet records, telegrams and the like, McMeekin’s chronological analysis of the unfolding crisis and war certainly brought to my mind a number of images: misunderstanding, lack of understanding, failure to understand, mendacity, and disingenuousness, as well incuriosity and incompetence among politicians and diplomats serving in London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, and St Petersburg. It’s not my intention here to provide my analysis or interpretation of events, not to describe them in any detail. That information can be found from many different sources, and undoubtedly the approaching centenary of the outbreak of hostilities will  surely bring with it a new crop of books to explain the whole affair. Furthermore, once hostilities broke out, and the war dragged on for four years, a number of myths grew (and have been sustained) about the nature of the conflict, and the (in)competence of the commanders directing the war from the British side. I found this brief debunking of myths by broadcaster and historian Dan Snow rather intriguing.

However, it’s the final chapter of McMeekin’s book, Epilogue: the Question of Responsibility, that I found most interesting really. And it’s the counterfactual, ‘what if’ analysis, that ties things together. It seems that a European war was just waiting to happen. Was it inevitable; could it have been localized to the Balkans? Could Turkey have been prevented from joining the Central Powers? What would have been the stance of the British government had it not been so focused at that time with the Irish question? If there had been fewer warmongers and more astute diplomats, would war have been averted? Who knows? These are good points to raise, and help focus attention on key issues or stages in the crisis leading up to the outbreak of hostilities 100 years ago. McMeekin does not absolve from blame any of the major protagonists for starting the war. His conclusions however are not what you might think or what you have been led to believe over the past century.

Counterfactual analysis is not an unknown as far as I’m concerned – but in a totally different context.  During the last decade I spent at IRRI with responsibility for program planning, donor support and fund raising, my office managed the development and submission for funding of research for development proposals. Part of that development process was ex ante impact assessment. My dear Australian friend Debbie Templeton, who worked at IRRI from 2005 to 2008 as an Impact Assessment Specialist before returning to ACIAR in Canberra, taught me a lot about counterfactuals. In evaluating the potential of a new technology to bring about a positive outcome she emphasized to me the need to assess what would/might happen in its absence, what could be the impact of adoption, how it could accelerate the achievement of a desired status, etc. It’s the ‘what if’ approach all over again but from a different perspective.

* July 1914: Countdown to War (2103) Icon Books, London: ISBN 978-184831-593-8